Students Vs The Drug War

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Feb 24, 2001.

  1. By Phil Zabriskie
    Source: Rolling Stone

    Now That Washington Has Turned Its Repressive Drug Policies Against Students, A Growing Campus Network Is Fighting Back.
    When Shawn Heller and Brian Gralnick joined Students for Sensible Drug Policy in 1998, as sophomores at George Washington University, SSDP was just a handful of students from Rochester Institute of Technology. One of them, Kris Lotlikar, was working in Washington, D.C. at the Drug Reform Coordination Network.

    Heller met Lotlikar and started the second SSDP chapter, which soon included Gralnick. Their focus was decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes - until Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind,) decided to target college students with drug convictions who were seeking federal loans. In October 1998, a law was passed as part of the Higher Education Act that prohibits any applicant with an adult drug conviction from receiving federal financial aid. No other group, including convicted murders, was similarly excluded. The Drug War had just hit college campuses.

    On the strength of that single issue - and with the backing of DRCNet - SSDP has grown into a national organization with more than seventy chapters, carrying out a sophisticated campaign to repeal the law. They have successfully pushed thirty-five student governments, the United States Student Association and the Association of Big Ten Schools to call for repeal of the HEA provision. Most notably, Heller, now SSDP's national director, and DRCNet campus coordinator Steven Silverman have met with Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), both of whom pushed repeal bills last year.

    Neither bill passed. Neither was expected to. The debates were a victory for SSDP, however - an affirmation of sorts. In crafting their legislation, both congressmen leaned heavily on SSDP for information and research. They echoed many of SSDP's main arguments: The law singles out low-income families and, due to racial inequities in sentencing, nonwhite students; there is no like provision for any other crime; the federal government requires no such disclosure when it awards grants or subsidies to businessmen. In his remarks before the House Workforce and Education Committee, Scott mentioned the SSDP-led Coalition for HEA Reform campaign by name.

    The environment for drug policy reform hasn't improved with the new president, but the battle will continue this spring, when Frank plans to reintroduce his bill. Heller says SSDP members are preparing for the long haul. They are working with drug-policy reform veterans such as the Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation and cooperating groups such as DanceSafe and the Center for Women's Policy Studies - trying to branch out wherever they can, especially in areas where issues overlap.

    There are positive signs on the academic front, as well. SSDP chapters have collected roughly sixty signatures on an educator sign-on letter, including that of Hampshire College President George S. Prince Jr., the first university head to come out against the provision. "Education is the best antidote we have to most of our social ills," Prince says. "Why do you want to exclude people from the education system when trying to keep them in the system is the most important thing you can do?"

    Other potential allies include financial-aid administrators. The law "just doesn't seem to be all that much related to helping poor people go to school, which is my main mission," says Todd Morriss, a financial-aid administrator at Southwest Missouri State University. Terry Hartle, of the American Council on Education, says, "The mere fact of having made a mistake, most likely at a young age, over a drug violation shouldn't preclude someone getting student financial aid. SSDP, he says, is "working on the grass-roots or campus level, and that's where pressure on this needs to come from."

    Through mid-January, the Department of Education had processed more than 9.3 million financial-aid applications for the 2000-01 school year. Nearly 8.5 million (91 percent) were approved. All of 8,056 (.09%) have been denied aid under the Souder amendment.

    One of those is Marisa Garcia, a sophomore at California State University at Fullerton, who was deemed ineligible for student aid after having been convicted of marijuana possession (her penalty was a $415 fine). She and her mother had been counting on the loan. Marisa was able to stay in college only after she upped the number of hours she works at a local flower shop to thirty a week, and her mother took out a loan against her house. Marisa recently started an SSDP chapter at her school. "I'll stand up for everyone else who doesn't know there's someone fighting for them."

    The Republican congressmen who supported the bill insist that taxpayer money should not be wasted on drug users. In a faxed statement to Rolling Stone, Ron Paul (R-Tex.) wrote, "I believe it is completely legitimate and justifiable for Congress to restrict access to federal aid for those with substance-abuse problems. To do otherwise would support the erroneous notion that people have a right to taxpayer funds regardless of their actions." Souder let numerous phone calls seeking comment on his bill go unreturned. He has asserted elsewhere that federal financial aid "is a privilege, not a right."

    If SSDP is to succeed, one of its many tasks will be to parry the favorite accusation of its pro-Drug War opponents - that drug-law reformers are closet legalizers. Last October, Brian Gralnick attended a taping of CNN's Crossfire on the George Washington campus. He asked the hosts about the HEA drug provision. He drew limited responses from them, but after the show he approached Office of National Drug Control Policy spokesman Robert S. Weiner, who was in the audience. Their conversation quickly became a policy argument. Then Weiner said, "What are you, on drugs?"

    "The only drug I had that day was MSG in my Chinese food," Gralnick wrote later. Weiner says Gralnick accosted him while he was leaving with his wife, that "his head was darting back and forth, and he was coming at me in a very irrational way.... He did look a bit unstable. So., bid deal." About SSDP, he says, "All they want to do is legalize drugs."

    Some minds will not change. SSDP, though, has to identify those that might, be they students or elected officials. Barney Frank, SSDP's best ally on the Hill, says the students should keep the pressure on. "I hope people won't be discouraged because it's not likely to succeed right away," he says. "We've made some gains already, and if people keep it up, I think we'll ultimately get rid of the whole thing."

    News Article Courtesy Of MapInc.

    Source: Rolling Stone (US)
    Author: Phil Zabriskie
    Published: February 24, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Straight Arrow Publishers Company, L.P.
    Address: 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104-0298
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